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Livebox Microscopes of the 19th Century


During the Enlightenment era and the Age of Exploration, science became increasingly popular. The general public, which was becoming more literate and interested in knowledge and education, drove the growth of print culture and the spread of scientific learning. In Britain, this was reflected in the establishment of organizations like the Royal Institution, which aimed to promote the introduction and dissemination of useful mechanical inventions and improvements, and to teach the application of science to daily life through philosophical lectures and experiments. As interest in natural philosophy grew, hobbyists also became interested in exploring the world around them. They studied insects, microscopic fauna and flora, fossils, and mineral crystals. Wealthy amateurs could afford costly compound microscopes, but simpler microscopes were used by those who were less professional or well-to-do. However, even these modest microscopes were able to satisfy the curiosity and spread the knowledge of natural history to the public well into the 20th century.

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Livebox Insectoscopes, ca. 1780 - 1820

During the early 19th century, people used lignum vitae or brass and glass single-lens live-box "insectoscope" microscopes. These microscopes had a live glass box that would illuminate insects, flowers, or minerals for inspection under magnification. Users could focus the microscope by rotating the screw-in lens by its milled housing. The magnification range was usually around x6 - x12.

These microscopes were simpler than the expensive ones used by professionals and were mostly used by amateurs who were interested in natural history but could not afford costly microscopes and prepared slides. Despite their simplicity, these microscopes helped to satisfy the curiosity of the public and spread the notion of natural history.

The livebox insectoscopes came in different forms and constructions. The examples shown here represent the two main forms used from the end of the 18th to the very beginning of the 19th century. However, they continued to appear in catalogues, such as that of Benjamin Pike's Son & Co, until the beginning of the second half of the century.


Inv. YG-20-025


Inv. YG-21-034


The photos above showcase two types of insect microscopes. The first one (YG-20-025) appears like a bottomless glass bottle featuring a lens enclosed in a brass frame at the neck. The fine-focusing can be achieved by rotating the lens-holder around the threaded tube. On the other hand, the second example (YG-21-034) comprises of a thick glass cylinder placed between two brass caps. The lens fixed at the top inside a brass frame allows one to observe a rolling wooden block with sets of beetles, shells, and seeds glued onto it. Both microscopes offer a magnification of about 4-8 times.

Additionally, we have a pocket-sized livebox microscope from the late 18th century or early 19th century (YG-21-036) that was designed to be carried to the field. To focus, the live specimen is placed between the two glass circles, and the eye lens can be screwed up or down. This useful little microscope is ideal for observing transparent or translucent objects.


Inv. YG-21-036


Below is another version of the livebox microscope, dating to the 1st half of the 19th c., combining a livebox with a simple slide viewer intended to house small-sized microscopical slides such as the ones made by the Bourgogne bros. in France. The magnification is estimated at ~x10.


Inv. YG-20-004

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The Seed Microscope, A mid-19th-century version of a livebox microscope is shown on the right. Its purpose is to inspect plant seeds under magnification for comparison. The microscope has a circular base divided into six compartments and covered with a glass top. Rising from the center is a pillar that carries a lens in a rotating mount, providing a magnification of about 5x. Different varieties of seeds are placed in these compartments, making them easily available for examination and comparison.

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Inv. YG-20-032


The Gem Microscope, dated 1873, is another form of slide viewer combined with a livebox microscope. Such instruments were marketed in Sears well into the early 20th century.

Inv. YG-23-002

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